Film-maker queries BBC reasons for shelving Jewish history documentary

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Guardian today  April 29.2013. Please note that   there is a factual error in the article.  She  writes :
” He said the BBC agreed with the National Film Board of Canada behind his back to change the title.”
and this is what I wrote  in my blog:
I was approached  by the distributor to see if I would agree for the BBC  to cut down the program.  I agreed to it on the condition that I would be  consulted  so the integrity of the longer version (104 min) would be preserved.  I also  said that if I was not  to be consulted  my name should be  removed  from the program and the cut down  will be listed as an “adaptation from a film by Ilan Ziv”.  From my access to some internal documents, it is obvious now that the BBC was not genuinely interested in my getting involved.  As the documents suggest, they  already   announced that the cut down version would be an adaptation.”
As you can see the  story is a bit different and the  National Film Board of Canada has nothing to do with this incident. Rather  than “cooking a deal”  behind my back  as I was alleged to have said,  they a communicated  faithfully to the BBC my conditions for the cut down.
I  am writing to the Guardian requesting them to  correct the error  and  use my words on this matter rather than summarize  them
Here is the full Guardian Story:
The film-maker behind a BBC4 documentary about ancient Jewish history that was shelved last week has accused the corporation of a “mixture of incompetence” and “political naiveté”.

Ilan Ziv, the Israeli-born documentary maker behind Jerusalem: an Archaeological Mystery Story, which questions the scale of the exodus of the Jewish people from Jerusalem in AD70, also said the official reason given by the BBC for pulling it from the schedules contradicts the one made to him in private.

“This is ultimately a sad saga of what I believe is a mixture of incompetence, political naiveté, conscious or subconscious political pressure and ultimately, I believe, a lack of courage of broadcasters when they are faced with the complexity of the Middle East issue and the intense emotions, fears and aggression it generates,” Ziv wrote on his blog.

He also accused the BBC of trying to “camouflage” the real content of the documentary by changing its title and of secretly planning with one of the film’s co-producers to remove Ziv’s name from the programme and to present it as an “adaptation” of his work.

The film was due to go out last Thursday as part of a BBC4 season on archaeology but was replaced at the last minute by a repeat of a documentary about Egyptologist Flinders Petrie.

The BBC denied it had been dropped because it was too controversial, saying it had done so because the film did “not fit editorially” with the tone of the season.

In a lengthy blogpost, Ziv said he believed the BBC dropped the documentary because they were afraid of his research, which was backed by a “detailed and substantial defence” and reviewed by “academics” and “reputable scholars” who did not find any factual errors or misrepresentations.

He said the film has nothing to do with the present conflict in the Middle East and has been screened elsewhere with little controversy, calling on the BBC to “rise above the hysteria and the attempts at self censorship”.

Ziv claimed an unnamed freelance hired by the BBC to reversion the film had called it “propaganda” and another had claimed it would “prop up the myth of exile ‘which we all know did not happen'”.

The BBC said it acquired Jerusalem: an Archaeological Mystery Story to supplement a BBC4 season exploring the history of archaeology. “However, it was decided that it did not fit editorially so we did not show the programme as part of the season,” the corporation said in a statement.

Ziv said the BBC acquired the documentary months ago but contacted him “barely a week before [the planned broadcast]” asking for his comments about a new cut of the film. He added that the corporation’s official version of events did not make sense.

“The BBC have had the film for almost six months. So why was this sudden rush which supposedly was the excuse given to me as to why the film was pulled out. Why was I contacted so late in the game? And why was there a discrepancy between what was told to me and the ‘official version’,” Ziv said.

“I discovered only 3 days before the broadcast that the BBC has been using a different name for the film: Jerusalem – An Archeological Mystery Story. It struck me as an odd choice that seems to camouflage the film’s real subject and repackages it as a neutral archeological mystery of sorts – like the hundreds of hours one can see on cable and satellite channels throughout the world.”.

“When I was given only a few days before a broadcast date that no one bothered to inform me about, I pleaded for more time. It was only when one of the programming executives called me, I realised that there were much bigger issues for her than my complaint about being pushed into an impossible schedule,” he said.

Propaganda’ claim over pulled BBC Jerusalem documentary

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 The  “Exile’ Saga continues!  Today’s article in The Jewish Chronicle

Propaganda’ claim over pulled BBC Jerusalem documentary 
The Cardo in Old Jerusalem (Photo: Dr. Avishai Teicher)The Cardo in Old Jerusalem (Photo: Dr. Avishai Teicher)

The Israeli-born director of a documentary that makes controversial claims about Jewish history has criticised the BBC’s decision not to air it as planned.

The film, Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story, was due to be shown on BBC Four last Thursday as part of the channel’s archaeology series. Made by Ilan Ziv, it was to be an abridged version of a documentary that was screened at a Jewish Film Festival in Canada last year.

The documentary pushes a theory that the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD did not send the Jews into the diaspora. “The exile of the Jewish people has played a central role in Christian and Jewish theology,” said the BBC’s synopsis. “But what if the exile never actually happened?”

Despite appearing in television listings, the documentary was replaced with another by the BBC, which stated that “it did not fit editorially” with the channel’s season exploring the history of archaeology.

However a viewer who contacted the BBC to ask why the programme had been cancelled said he was told that “it might have been controversial”.

Mr Ziv told the JC that he had been contacted only a few days before the programme was due to air, and discovered that BBC executives had questioned its content during the editing process to produce a final cut of the programme.

“Part of the editorial debate was that one freelance employee who was hired as part of the re-versioning of the film called it propaganda,” he said. “Another person inside the BBC, claimed (or so I was told) that the film drove some political point of view.

“I was a little taken aback because the BBC had a broadcast copy of the master of the film for months and I was contacted to comment on the cut six days before the broadcast without even being told there was a broadcast,” he said. “It was very unprofessional.”

He offered to help the BBC rebut criticisms but said he was not given the chance.

“They told me that a few days before the broadcast that the cut that they had had been recut, because somebody anonymous felt that a scene that depicted the Palestinians towards the end was too emotive,” he said.

“I gave them the excuse to pull it out because when I realised I had three days to re-edit the cut, I said I was unlikely to have time.”

He said he did not believe in conspiracy theories. “I do not know what really happened inside the BBC,” he said. “I think the problem is the people who bought the film were very well-meaning and were completely taken aback by this very vicious reaction.”

Mr Ziv said he hoped to organise alternative screenings in the UK so that the film could be “judged on its own merit”. He rejected the suggestion that it was controversial since it does not deal with contemporary Israeli politics, and said he was not attempting to push the theory of writer Shlomo Sands, who challenges “the whole concept of the Jewish people

“Sands did something that I refuse to do,” he said.

When the documentary was shown in Toronto, Mr Ziv found the reaction extremely positive. “There were some people who challenged it but the film was meant to raise debate,” he said. “It was not attacked. People argued about the issues, but they were meant to.”

“Some people will hate it, some people will love it, but let them debate it.”

BBC bosses found Jewish film ‘too hot’

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The  “Exile” saga continues! As promised , today’s  London Times article about the  controversy  of

” Exiling” my film in the BBC, the details of which you can read in Yesterday’s blog which you can see by scrolling down.

Ilan Ziv’s film questions scale of the Jewish exile

Laura Dixon

Published at 12:01AM, April 29 2013

The BBC has been criticised for dropping a film questioning the scale of the mass exile of the Jewish people after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70.

Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story, by the Israeli-born film-maker Ilan Ziv, was to examine “new evidence that suggests that the majority of the Jewish people may not have been exiled following the fall of Jerusalem”.

The exile of the Jews after a failed uprising against the Roman Empire has played a central role in Christian and Jewish theology. But the documentary was pulled at the last minute, and a repeat of an older programme was broadcast instead.

The BBC denied that it had been dropped because of the content, saying that it had decided not to show it because it “did not fit editorially” with other programmes in a season exploring the history of archeology. It added that the possibility of showing it at a later date was under review.

However, questions have been raised about whether the broadcaster feared that the film, which was to have been screened on BBC Four at 9pm on Thursday, would be too controversial. Reviewers had predicted that it would ruffle some feathers.

Radio Times reviewer said that “evidence revealed here, suggesting that the Jewish exile from Jerusalem in AD70 may never have actually happened, has … severe ramifications for relations in the region”.

In publicity releases, the BBC had said that the documentary would raise “important ethical questions about … present-day Middle Eastern issues”.

Ziv said he was told that it was dropped when it was realised that there would not be much time to work on the 60-minute edit of such an important and potentially controversial documentary. He thought that the BBC had been “unprepared” for the programme, realising that it was “a hotter potato than they understood it to be” quite late down the line.

Viewers who had wanted to see the documentary questioned the last-minute change of schedule.

Sue Heath wrote on the Radio Times website: “Why was this programme pulled? It is very hard to contact anyone real to get an answer, but I suspect pressure groups have made a fuss as it might be embarrassing politically.”

THE EXILING OF MY FILM , “EXILE A MYTH UNEARTHED”, IN THE BBC

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As some of you know, my film EXILE, A MYTH UNEARTHED, which examines the myth of the Jewish EXILE and its political impact on both Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, was going to be shown on the BBC Thursday April 25th. It was pulled out of the schedule only a few days earlier.

Since than I was flooded by dozens of emails of angry and concerned viewers asking what happened.   To be honest I debated whether to tell the story of what I think had happened. I have worked with the BBC in the past on some programs that were deemed controversial and I never had any political censorship. On the contrary I was impressed by the integrity and fairness of the people I dealt with.

So based on my past experience, I was going to wait patiently until the BBC programming executives would solve the internal drama that apparently has begun to brew inside the BBC.  “The film is gorgeous, courageous and fresh, “ I was told several times by the programming executives. I was promised that the cancellation was temporary: “Given the short timescale and your workload, we have decided to delay transmission until we’ve had the chance you’ve had the chance to go through it in detail”. 

I naively believed and decided to wait quietly. But things have their own momentum and as I learned more, I realized that the story of “EXILE” in the BBC is far more complex.

Among the dozens of emails I received one caught my attention. It included the official email response from the BBC to the inquiry/complaint sent to irate viewers who contacted the BBC asking why the program was pulled out of the schedule. This email contradicted a private email sent to me by the programming executives. I was intrigued.

I discovered after quick research that while I was contacted by the BBC barely a week before the broadcast asking for my comments about the cut, the BBC have had the film for almost 6 months. So why was this sudden rush which supposedly was the excuse given to me as to why the film was pulled out?  Why was I contacted so late in the game?  And why was there a discrepancy between what was told to me and the “official” version . I started to dig a bit deeper and to put my findings in a blog, rather than answer the dozens of people who wrote to me privately.

This is not a personal issue.  This is ultimately a sad saga of what I believe is a mixture of incompetence, political naiveté, conscious or subconscious political pressure and ultimately, I believe, a lack of courage of broadcasters when they are faced with the complexity of the Middle East issue and the intense emotions, fears and aggression it generates. Once you indeed depersonalize this incident, you gain a fascinating insight into  how subtle and complex is the process by which our understanding of the  Israeli Palestinian conflict is being shaped and what happens when one dares to raise questions about issues deemed by some as taboos.  It is this insight that I think is worth sharing and detailing.

The story begins for me with the name. I discovered only 3 days before the broadcast that the BBC has been using a different name for the film: Jerusalem – An Archeological Mystery Story.   It struck me as an odd choice that seems to camouflage the film’s real subject and repackages it as a neutral archeological mystery of sort- like the hundreds of hours one can see on cable and Satellite channels throughout the world.

“ Exile” of course is not about a mystery, neither it is limited to archeology or to Jerusalem. The name and the illusion that one can pretend that this film is just about archeology and its mysteries are at the core I believe of Thursday’s fiasco.

Digging deeper I also learned that this title was established back in November 2012 in the agreement between the National Film Board of Canada (one of the  film’s co producers and its int’l distributor) and the BBC.  I was approached  by the distributor to see if I would agree for the BBC  to cut down the program.  I agreed to it on the condition that I would be  consulted  so the integrity of the longer version (104 min) would be preserved.  I also  said that if I was not  to be consulted  my name should be  removed  from the program and the cut down  will be listed as an “adaptation from a film by Ilan Ziv”.  From my access to some internal documents, it is obvious now that the BBC was not genuinely interested in my getting involved.  As the documents suggest, they  already   announced that the cut down version would be an adaptation.

So back in November 2012, everything seemed to be on track to produce a cut down of the film without having to deal with the director, broadcast the film under a neutral title and hopefully avoid any serious political debate. A perfect solution!  So what went wrong?

Fast forward to Saturday April 20th 2013 when I received an email from a friend in the UK who saw that “my” film Jerusalem; An Archeological Mystery Story was going to be broadcast on BBC 4. He even read a preview of it in the Guardian. The preview promised that the film “ will ruffle some feathers”.  Two days earlier I did receive from the editor who cut the film a copy of the cut for me to comment on, but there was no mention of an impeding broadcast date!

On Monday, 3 days before the broadcast, I fired an email to the BBC programming executives complaining that it is unfair to expect me to spend time reviewing the cut and coming up with suggestions of a re cut, when I was given only a few days before a broadcast date that no one bothered to inform me about. I pleaded for more time. It was only when one of the programming executives called me, I realized that there were much bigger issues for her than my complaint about being pushed into an impossible schedule.

The program executive seemed genuinely shocked that a freelance employee hired by the BBC to take part in the re-versioning process called the film “propaganda”. When I asked if this unnamed person had specific examples to support such a sweeping charge, I was told  that she claimed that , “Everything was propaganda”.  And there was more.

An “unnamed” BBC insider who I was told “liked the film,” claimed that the film props up the myth of Exile “ which we all know did not happen, in order to support his political analysis”.  I learned that the cut I was given was now irrelevant, since some internal review deemed one scène with the Palestinians to be “too emotive” and they were asked to cut it down.  Realizing that a mini political storm was brewing around the film and attacks lodged against its integrity, I asked and was promised that I would be given at least a summary of the essential charges so I could answer them in length.  I am obviously very familiar with some of them and could easily and in detail refute them.  I told the programming executive that my reply would help them to defend the film in the Channel. After all, they professed to love the film and seemed genuinely interested to show it.  I told them it was very easy for me to prepare a detailed rebuttal with citation of sources for every word of the narration, the overall  analysis and for every scene. I told them that some of the academic participants in the program who  saw the cut and are reputable scholars in their field  did not find any factual errors or misrepresentations of facts or  of the historical narrative. In other words, I argued that such a detailed and substantial defense would convince any objective reader and observer of the editorial integrity of the film. I repeated the request several times yet I never got a reply. Instead, I received an email telling me that they decided to pull it out of the schedule, citing  the “ short  timetable and my work load “( !) A few days later I saw the “official” version that went to the public:

“We originally acquired ‘Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story’ to supplement BBC Four’s season exploring the history of archaeology. However, we have decided that it doesn’t fit editorially and are no longer planning to show it as part of the season.  Plans to broadcast  the program are currently under review”  So Exile, A myth unearthed  has begun its own exile within the BBC.

I do believe it is ultimately a sad saga. A saga of well meaning programming executives who acquired  the  “courageous “ film  they claim to love, believing that they can sneak it by with a “neutral title”. When they were “caught”, rather than face the criticism  and be helped by the mountains of documents and data I was ready to send them,  they panicked like deer in the headlights not knowing what to do and eventually raised  their hands in resignation.

The truth of the matter is that the reaction outside and inside the BBC surprised me too. The film by now has been shown in a Jewish Festival in Toronto, playing in a screening room there for a week. It was shown on Canadian TV with a second broadcast  planned for June.  Another version of the film is scheduled to be shown in France and  the original  version in Switzerland ,with  hopefully screenings in the US later in the year.  The response in all the public screenings, some of which I attended, was overall extremely positive. Nowhere did the film generate such a reaction as  that of the few individuals inside and outside the BBC.

The temporary success to “exile” the film might prove I believe to be a pyrrhic victory.

EXILE does not deal with contemporary politics in the Middle East, rather, it proposes to examine their ideological and historical underpinnings.  EXILE has not contributed to the political stalemate in the region nor to the continued bloodshed, occupation and violence. It is a film born out of the continued violence. Rather than propose a simplistic solution or an aspirational political program , it tries to suggest a possible way out by re examining the historical narratives we all grew up on, suggesting that in this tormented land there are historical models of co existence and tolerance that could replace the dominant conventional nationalist ones. Silencing this film is silencing a possibility of discussion, debate and re examination not of the current political stalemate but of the intellectual stalemate that contributes to it.

I hope that somewhere in the BBC someone will rise above the hysteria and the attempts at self censorship to take a cooler look at the film and realize how it has been profoundly mis-characterized , -viewing it through partisan glasses instead of looking at it for what it is:  a film that can and has already in its  public screenings generated  dialogue and positive, thinking rather than perpetuating divisions  and polarization.

So for me this is not the end of EXILE in the UK but only the beginning.  I will show the film publically throughout the UK and will challenge the BBC to either broadcast the film or relinquish its rights. I have offered to buy these rights so I could place the film elsewhere in the UK.

The saga of EXILE will continue. Stay tuned!

Execution Day – the End

Here is the last piece I promised to write about the Day of Execution to which I dedicated several updates.  Some will ask why so many of the updates. It is a good question for which I do not have an answer.   The only explanation that comes to my  mind is the fact that I swore when I marched into the execution room to bear witness to what I saw. I feel it is my responsibility to share my experience with as many people as possible. After all so few people ever watched an execution. Thinking or talking about the Death Penalty and witnessing an execution are two very different things. The devil ,as they say, is in the details. And  it is the details of that day that I found so illuminating.

My last update ended with a single telephone call in the administrative building and the look of the guard who informed me “it’s a go”. I followed him to the “cafeteria” where we have been waiting for 3.30 hours. I looked at the wall it was around 8.37pm.  All hopes were gone. Mark was going to be executed. The mood in the “cafeteria”  changed instantly.  Some began to cry, some hugged or held hands. I will never forget the walk from the cafeteria across the street to the prison.  We all hugged or held hands… some  cried.  The walk is a short one as you descend some stairs and go literally across the street to enter the prison.  However it is a walk that seemed to last for ever.  Adding to the surrealism was the knowledge that for those outside, this walk was the signal that all hope is gone and the execution was going to take place. There were only few television cameras but down the road behind the police line I could hear shouts and shrieking.  I felt as I would feel for the rest of the evening that I was participating in some absurd show …some bizarre ritual. My role …our role, was now to enter the  “theater” . Were were the selected  spectators. The rest  watched us knowing full well the nature of what we were going to watch.  We were not alone with our thoughts and feelings. We were being watched.  This contradiction between knowing that in few minutes Mark Stroman was going to be killed and the sense of this bizarre theater never left me throughout the process. This ritualized killing was for me one of the most haunting aspects of the execution. It was a testimony to how humanly complex this event is. The State has to dress up the execution with legal and clinical trapping as if by that they hope to add legitimacy to it.  We had a role to play in the “show”. We were going to watch the ritual as spectators .Nothing was done in the dark, nothing was “hidden”, as if shinning light on the killing would dramatically alters its nature.

The sense of theater only increased as we walked slowly towards the “stage”. We were alone accompanied by few prison functionaries,; the Chaplin and Mark’s  spiritual advisor (more about them later.) Only later I  realized that among this very small crowd there were two reporters. They had a role to play in the show as well. They were to “report” on Mark’s last words and behavior. One of them the AP guy  I have been told had an illustrious career of observing over 200 executions.  I have no idea if he received any prize for his “brave journalistic endeavors” but I do remember that  Sam, my camera person, who with a British print reporter interviewed Mark only a week ago , told me about how irate was Mark seeing this guy walking around the visitors hall.  Mark refused to talk to him and claimed he mistreated and misrepresented inmates. But now it was not up to Mark anymore. He lost the last privilege of the living: to decide who will be witnessing his own death.

We proceeded through corridors. No one talked . I remember a particular rcorridor  that seemed to be a visitor hall where families meet their loved ones separated by a wire mesh, not the cages with glass partition I got used to in Polunsky.

Another door and other curve and suddenly a blast of hot air. We were outside in an inner courtyard inside prison.  We were surrounded by tall buildings and barbered wire fence.

To our left   there was a very low building with few doors ,as if  it was an architectural after thought- an appendix in this “courtyard”.  I understood instantly that this must be the Death chamber.  It is as if that recognition hit me in my guts.  But why?   Why at that moment with so much tension building up, I sensed that this was the building was heading to. How come I instantly realized that that the building was the “Death house( a series of cells culminating in the Execution chamber)?  It was a mystery for me , that believe it or not, pre occupied me for at least 24 hours after the execution until it suddenly hit me:   The Gas chambers of Mejdanek of course!

Mejdanek was a concentration/death camp in Poland near the city of Lublin.  I visited it almost 20 years ago with my father a Holocaust refugee himself.  My father overwhelmed with emotions left my brother and me and returned to the car.  We set out to look for the Gas chambers of Mejdanek.  The camp unlike death camps ( exclusively reserved for killing)  served also as a slave labor camp with barracks for the prisoners.  Somewhere in the camp were the Gas chambers.  It was a gorgeous autumn afternoon with a golden sun setting lighting the camp.  The trees were blazing in red yellow and gold; the dark wooden barracks could be mistaken for some youth camp…at least from the outside.  And here were my brother and I stumbling amidst heaps of golden leaves searching for the illusive Gas chambers. And than on the outskirts of the camp we saw this low concrete building that stood out. It simply did not blend with the rest.  Sure enough it  was Majdanek’s gas chamber. Twenty years later and totally subconsciously I carried in me this image of a death house set apart and different looking from the rest of the buildings around it.  Somewhere in the depth of my mind an association was made. It would haunt me ever since. We went along that low building passed few doors and  a warden  ushered us through the last door. And here the comparison with that gas chamber was over.  In Majdanek we entered a bare room with a very low ceiling stained with bluish greenish color, that the a French tour guide explained to his  students, was the reaction of the chemicals of the gas mixed with the plaster.

In Huntsville we entered a bizarre show room. . It was small… very small. The ceiling here was very low too.  But rather than advancing in a bare  dilapidated structure, here we advanced in a darkened freshly painted room  towards a glass window. Behind it was yet another chamber ,oppressively  small and painted in green .In the middle was Mark Stroman strapped to a gurney.   Standing in that small room peeking at him through the glass I felt we were in a museum watching some rare exhibit.

When my daughter turned 13 years I took her and her friend  to see London. It was the first and only time I was in Madame Tousseau’s  museum.  What impressed us all were a series of  “Tableaux” in the “dungeons”. Here were life size wax statues of Jack the Ripper, Queen Elizabeth in her cell in the Tower of London, to name just few. We were passing from one glass window to the next watching a life  like “Tableau” through a window. This is how I felt once we entered this very small room and walked towards the glass window ,  behind which there was a scene out of a Madam Touseau.  Mark strapped on his back could only move his head slightly to recognize us. At the head of the gurney was what seemed to be a wax statue of a warden wearing a dark suit. He was standing a foot behind Mark ‘s head staring at the space head of him. He was wearing dark sunglasses, his hands clasped behind his back. He had a plastic earpiece like a Secret Service agent.

On the other side of the gurney was the Chaplin who  had instructed us in the Hospitality suite. He also stared at the space ahead murmuring some prayers.  In one hand he held what I assumed was a small prayer book.  He touched Mark’s ankle, with his right  hand.  He did it too according to “protocol”  It was for   “ human contact” , he  had  told us in the hospitality suite where he had  “prepared” us for what were were watching now.  If not for his moving lips he too eerily resembled a wax statute from Madam Touseau ‘s wax museum. The only  proof  of life in this “Tableau”   was of course Mark. He was very much alive, and painfully so. While we waved, cried and touched the glass he smiled and recognized us nodding his head. He was for me the only living person in this grotesque show.

Rick Halperin, A Dallas professor of Human Rights and an anti Death Penalty activist, had warned me, when  we met, to be prepared  for the sight of tubes. Rick witnessed an execution in  1998 and  he particularly remembered one tube  carrying a black liquid that was injected into the condemned prisoner’s veins. The State of Texas must have listened to Rick Halperin ‘s description.   In our execution chamber there were no tubes in sight, neither were  bags of liquid. No machine or other instrument could be seen.  Even the point where the needle pierced Mark’s skin was covered up with white bandages.  The room was sparkling clean . Mark was covered to his chest by a spotless clean white sheet and some green blanket

It was as if  we were in a hospital room. It all seemed to be so clinical.

Few minutes after we all piled into this tiny room   taking it all in , the  “show “ began. And what a choreographed shows it was!  Samuel Becket ,  one of the founding fathers of the Theater of the Absurd, could not have conceived of a better play.  Performance and Stage directions were honed to perfection.  Over 400 executions in Texas (more than all states combined) produced superb acting and precisely choreographed performance.

The “spectacle”  began with a door opening at the other side of the tiny chamber.  I was so tense focusing on Mark that I  have not even noticed that there was  a door painted in green, like the walls around it. A man dressed in dark business suit lowered his head and peeked into the little chamber:

Warden proceeds” he said and than without turning his back to us, he simply retreated back into the darkness from which he had  come and the door was closed.

No one moved or recognized  the existence of this  “intruder” . However that  was apparently  the signal for Mark to begin  saying  his final words.  I published them in an earlier update.  We were all glued to him and the glass.  The air was heavy,you could slice it with a knife. To make things worse,  in this otherwise implacable show, the microphone was faulty.  We were straining to hear Mark’s voice.

I remember the sentences from the scriptures, his beautiful sentence about Hate, the pain it causes and how it needs to stop.

Than according to the  “reporters “ who were present he said:

“Let’s do this damn thing. “

But did he say it?  None of us remember  him ever saying it.  What I do remember that he turned his head lightly towards us  (he was strapped on his back and this movement of the head must have been painful) and thanked us each by name.  It was such a “Mark’s moment” literally seconds before Death thanking each and one of us personally.

So did he say, “Let’s do this damn thing” or didn’t he?  Some of us agonized  over that because the “reporters’ allegation was that he uttered a “curse”.

I could not care  less. Actually if indeed he said this sentence I am even more proud of him. What would I have called this surrealist ritual strapped there on the gurney only seconds before my death?  Would I have chosen another word to describe it? Hell no!

If Mark indeed uttered a “curse” it paled in comparison with the obscenity of the spectacle we were now condemned to watch.

And than in yet one more typical Mark ‘s moment, he said :

I love you, all of you. It’s all-good; it’s been a great honor. I feel it; I am going to sleep now. Goodnight, 1,2… there it goes.

Those were his last words that I will remember as long as I live.  Mark calmly giving the cue to the Executioner, even counting till three like we do in field recording:” Coming in 3,…1, 2…

He closed his eyes and I never saw any change in his face afterwards . It looked from the outside as if he was peacefully going to sleep.  For me it was a relief.  I heard so many stories about the drugs used in execution. Only in late June a man was executed in Georgia after tossing his head dying with his eyes open.  I was a worried sick about Mark . But he seemed to die peacefully and at that moment it was a huge relief.

We were standing there hypnotized as the “show “ continued: an immobilized wax like statute of the Warden staring ahead, the Chaplin standing on the other side of the Gurney staring into space too. And in the middle was Mark, now lying with his eyes closed for what seemed to be an eternity.

And than from  “stage left” from yet another door that could not be seen through our  “window” another man emerged as if he was waiting in the back.  He was the doctor. He very earnestly stepped to the gurney and began to examine Mark with his stethoscope putting his fingers to his neck and checking his pulse.

And than he leaned slightly towards  the microphone above Mark’s face and said:

“Death occurred at 8.53 “

And as if on cue the Chaplin lifted the sheet and covered Mark’s face. He was now officially dead. I felt a slight touch on my shoulder this was yet another  the Chaplin who was with us in the Hospitality suite.  I never noticed him. It was time to go he said quietly.  The show was over.

Back in the parking lot of the Hospitality suite to where were driven in the Chaplin’s car we met the other “man of God” who for “human contact” touched Mark’s ankle. His new role now  was to deliver Mark’s personal belongings  There were several bags of meshed plastic net. To me they looked like  onion bags. We helped the Chaplin to dump all of Mark’s earthly belonging to our pick up truck. Offender Mark A. Stroman #999409 was no more.  Mark’s body was released minutes earlier and there  in the parking lot the state finished the process by releasing Mark’s belonging:  few sacks of legal work, typewriter some unanswered letters, photographs and food staples he bought in the prison commissary. Mark Stroman ceased to be the property of the State of Texas. His body and his belongings were now with us.

Execution Day Part 2

 

As promised here is my update, telling the story of the Day of Execution.  As you remember, I wrote a week or so ago  describing the first part of the day. This is the second installment. There will be a third one as well. For me the details of that day are important and in order to communicate them in full I need time and space.

To be honest I even debated whether to write it at all. Why to insist on yet one more dark narrative of that experience? But some how I feel I must.  Some friends who were outside the prison and did not witness the execution with us asked me, how was it?  What was my reaction?  I answered than as I will answer now that I feel privileged that I witnessed an execution.  I know that privilege sounds like an odd, even unfortunate word to use in this context.

Let me explain:

Many of us  object to the Death Penalty  for different reasons. But only until one witnesses it… experiences it, he/she realizes how abstract are our ideas about it.  I feel privileged because now that I have been through the process, I experienced it, I can really bear witness. I am far more energized to fight it. I have so much less patience to discuss it with those who support it. For them, like for me prior to July 20th, it is an almost abstract moral and intellectual issue. But execution as I learned  is far from abstract. It is a process that involves dozens of people.  It is a shockingly human process, in its banality, tragedy, its pettiness, obsession with details and protocols, all aimed to disguise the killing committed by the State.  All the legal social trappings used , are meant  to cover up what is essentially a very simple phenomenon in which humans kill other humans in the name of country, religion or in this case in the name of the Law.  Being such a profoundly human process it touches almost every aspect of society. It involves prison guards, doctors, clergy, religious volunteers, churches, secretaries, courts, judges  attorneys prosecutors and many others.

Almost ten years earlier ,on September 15, 2001, Mark Stroman an angry damaged and drug infused individual erupted  murdering  two people and wounding  one.  It was a  lonely act… a very lonely act of an individual out of control acting on a mix of emotions, prejudices and anger.  Why did he erupt like this is still an enigma that haunts many psychologists.  Compare this individual eruption to  the hundreds of individuals who over 10 years worked tirelessly and in a very deliberate fashion ensuring that on July 20th mark would be killed. They were all honest and righteous citizens, proud members of society. None has any criminal record; many have loving wives, husbands and children. All believed  that they were doing their job to uphold the law and protect society.

When I asked  Greg  Davies, the prosecutor  to contemplate on that comparison he got visibly angry.  How can I compare Mark brutal killing of two innocent individuals, he asked ,to the State giving Mark all the protection of the law.  I will write some day about that protection of the law and how Mark got the Death Penalty ( Mr. Davies’s big success). But  now I had the chance to witness the deliberate killing of the State after giving Mark “ the full due process as prescribed by laws”. In many ways this killing frightened me much more than watching Mark,  captured on security camera tape, bursting into Vadushev Patel  (his last victim) convenience store shooting  him on the spot. I find this lone act of an obviously damaged individual less threatening than dozens  and dozens of well meaning people spending almost a decade ensuring Mark’s death of July 20th, 2011.

It is a measure  of their  success that I was now driving to  Hunstville  to witness the execution . I would like to walk you carefully minute by minute through that experience.  I am able to do it because I will always remember every minute, every sight, every sound and every smell of that day.  That how alert I was, straining to absorb and mentally record every minute of that day.

If you recall  in the first “chapter” I described my last visit with Mark.  Mark had two more visitors after me and his official visitation was over at 12pm.  He was taken straight from the visitation room  to the prison in Huntsville- to the “Death House”. He had described to me earlier in the day how would this” death march” unfold.  There were 110 steps, he said, from where we were sitting to the  “Death Van” waiting outside.   From there it was a 45 min ride to Huntsville. It was going to be Mark’s first ride outside since he entered Death Row in April 2002.  He told me he was looking forward to it “like an animal, which has been caged for almost 10 years”.

We the witnesses re grouped and drove an hour later to Huntsville too. We were going to wait for the Execution in the “Hospitality Suit”; a house dedicated to families of inmates who come to visit their loved ones incarcerated in Huntsville or to the families of the condemned who have to spend the last 2-3 hours there until they are being driven 2 blocks  away to the prison to wait for the final hour before the Execution.

The  “Hospitality Suit “ is indeed  a wonderful  place.  It is runs by a church and private donations .It is  a spacious house.  We were welcomed to a home cooked lunch prepared by  wonderful church volunteers. The desert , home made Jello with real fruits, was memorable.  We were sitting in a comfortable large  living room, ( with an open fire for the winter!) checking our emails and text messages. We could even talk to Mark who kept calling us from the “Death House” periodically between 3-5 pm when he was allowed to receive calls from all over the world.  I described all of that in an earlier blog.

But to be honest I loathed this place and was furious at all the wonderful people who surrounded us from nice church volunteers to at least 2 chaplains and Mark’s spiritual advisor. I know it is  irrational and also unfair to be angry with people who tried  to make our stay, given the circumstances,  as pleasant as possible. But it was in the “Hospitality suit” that I understood for the first time how this wonderful “cover up” allows the State of Texas to execute so many people while still claiming to be moral and Christian. Execution, in the “Hospitality Suit” , was treated as some terminal disease from which Mark was going to die in few hours. We were the assembled relatives and friends to be with him in his last moment.  None of us had any power to change anything. Execution like death itself was an act of nature. We just had to accept it and all these wonderful people around us worked very hard to ease our  “acceptance”.  Huntsville prison could have been a hospice and we were going to see our dying friend. It is in the Hospitality Suite that I realized how many people are involved in the process of killing a prisoner and how they are basically decent nice human beings who truly believe that they are doing God’s work in trying to ease the agony of the relatives who are about to witness the killing of their loved one.  Now many of you would deem this description as unfair.  So what do you want?  I can hear people asking. Would it have been better if rude tough armed prison guards would have accompanied you barking orders and guarding you in some empty stark room?

For me the answer is Yes!  It would at least be more in tune with what is going on, instead of wrapping this capsule of cyanide with melted chocolate and Jello with real fruits. This anger continued to build  in me throughout that afternoon as I realized how insidious this civilized cover up is in helping us to accept what should be unacceptable.  After the execution I felt that I wished the Guillotine was back in service with  hooded executioners hoisting the head of the condemned showing  it  the cheering crowds. It was so “uncivilized “ in the French Revolution or Elizabethan England hundreds of years before, but it was a much more honest event showing execution for what it is .

But  soon even  the “Hospitality Suit”  became a distant memory. At 5pm few minutes after Mark’s last call we were ushered to the Chaplin’s car for a short two block ride to prison. Avoiding media and the few demonstrators we made our way to the back entrance of the Administrative building across the street from prison.  We were deposited in the Cafeteria accompanied by a prison guard and a Texas Ranger.  It is in this Cafeteria that our torture began.  We were in a bare room.  We had to leave our pocketbooks keys, coins and cellular phones with those who stayed in the “Hospitality Suite”. We were left in that room waiting…and waiting. It is almost impossible for me now to describe the wait.  For the first hour we barely talked. Each  curled  in his/her own chair and corner left to his /her own thoughts. On the wall above us was a large clock.  Time passed slowly …very slowly. With nothing to read besides some employer’s bulletins on the wall I could not stop thinking about the execution and what awaits us.  I knew that across the street Mark was in his cell only few feet from the Execution Chamber probably left to his thoughts as well. Worst of all we had no clue  what was happening in the outside world. We knew that the Federal Court dismissed Rais’s lawsuit and I assumed it was now going through the Appellate courts but what was going on?

Six pm came and went and I  asked the nice prison guard ( everyone was so nice in this kingdom of Death)  who was with us what was going on. “ It is the Courts,” he said.  But he did not know any specifics. He too was just a cog in the machine.  He was waiting for a phone call “ from the office of the unit”. They were in the dark too. They too were waiting   for a call.  The State Attorney office was going to call them when the Execution cleared the Courts.  Far away in Austin, New Orleans (where the 5th Circuit is) and the Supreme Court in Washington a legal chess game was going on. We had nothing to do with it. We were not a factor and neither was Mark whose life or death was to be decided in these various courtrooms.  As if we were spectators waiting for some bizarre game to begin, waiting for the referees and their entourage to settle their differences.  Being a father I could not even begin to imagine how would I feel if instead of Mark it was my son or my daughter and I was forced to sit there waiting to witness the execution of my child.

Why the Execution date was set before the legal battle reached its final end? Why the Execution date was not postponed to let the legal process one last chance to reach a legal conclusion?  Why all of that was happening at 6pm?   Those were some of the thoughts racing in my head.  As I learned it was very common for the legal battle to take place until the last minute but rarely it did not resolve itself by 6pm.

It was 6.30 already.  Hopes were building up quickly.  I learned from the guards (now after 6pm   everyone began to talk and socialize) that if Mark  was not going to be executed by 11pm , his Death Warrant”  was going to be  null and void ,since the execution needed to be completed by 11.59pm  (Protocols!). If indeed Mark was not going to be executed that night he would get an automatic stay of 30 days.

I knew Judge Anthony Scalia, the judge on duty on the Supreme Court that day  sealed Mark fate at around 4pm  by turning down  Mark’s last appeal . But Rais ‘s civil suit now still in litigation could have got him 30 days Stay.  Thirty days , I thought, is not something to sneer at when you are facing death.

It was few minutes past 8pm and it looked like it was not going to happen. Even the guards  sensed that if the case did  not resolve itself within the next 30 min it probably was not going to happen. Our mood improved steadily. It looked as if  Rais’s  desperate last move to stay Mark’s execution succeeded at least temporarily  . Maybe in 30 days something else could be envisioned legally.   Maybe a renewed Clemency appeal?  A new legal challenge?

A telephone call woke me up from my  reveries. I followed the guard earlier to a phone attached  to the wall at  the end of a long corridor . He explained to me than that this is where he would get the call from the ” Unit” to proceed.

I heard  the call . I was the only one in the room that understood what this call meant. I  followed the guard . I could not hear what he said but I remember him  standing  there at the end  of what seemed at the moment few miles long corridor.  He turned to me  saying : “It’s a go!” 

Wednesday July 20th , 2011- Execution Day (Part 1)

I  am  inching my way  to write about  Mark Stroman’s last day and his execution.  It has taken me time to gather my thoughts and put my impressions on paper. It probably was the most intense day of my life.  I had other intense days of  course but nothing that resembles this day  full of fears,  emotions concerns about the  other witnesses to the execution, worries about Mark and his final  hours , the execution  and than the private viewing of his body. The  day that started for me  at  9.30 am  with my  last visit  with Mark  who  was full of humour and  as usual  some keen observations:  “There is so much love pumped into me  it does not leave any room for  hate” . It   ended at 11 pm at night  with a cold body on  a stretcher…. but all of that will come later.

Today I wanted to share with you Rais and Mark first ever conversation.  It was also the last. We, the 5 witnesses to the execution, were in the “Hospitality suite” two blocks from the prison. It is a guesthouse run by private donations and the Baptist church. It is a place where families of prisoners can stay or wait for the execution of their loved ones. Between 3pm-5pm Mark was allowed to talk to anyone he wished. In between phone calls to friends and relatives he kept calling us. Mark was in the “Death House” cells, which were only few feet from the Execution chamber and 2 blocks from where we were.  Mark was eating his last meal and smoking his first cigarettes in 10 years:“This can kill you “ he joked.   Yes I answered they are not good for your health”.

The people here”, Mark said, “are not that concerned about my health now”. He ate so much he said , “they will have to wake me up to kill me “

It was tense time for him as he had 2 hours to say  farewell to all his relatives and friends from around the world

Hundreds of Miles away Rais was struggling in various State and Federal courts in Austin to get Mark a stay of execution. He was using a novel legal tactic: suing the State of Texas because it had violated his rights as a victim under the Texas law. The State refused Rais’s s request even to see Mark.

The time was 4.35 and Rais legal suit was rejected by the District Court in Austin and by the Federal 5th circuit Court.  It was now before the Supreme Court. Execution was scheduled to 6pm. Rais was in the Court House in Austin when he received my text message. I texted him  the prison phone number and he texted me back that he was trying , but the phone was busy.

Around 4.40pm he called me on my cell phone to let me know that the Prison authorities will not let him speak to Mark. He was upset and did not understand why he could not talk to Mark in his last hours.  Mark was at that very moment on a speakerphone with all of us. I put the cell phone on speaker and put it near the house phone, which was on a speaker too. Below is the transcribed conversation that followed and recorded by us. It reflects the confusion , the urgency of Mark last minutes before his phone was cut off as well as the uniqueness of the moment.

Mark: Whom am I talking now?  I have two people on the Line

Ilan& Connie :  Mark say Hello to Rais

Mark I think there is cross connection

Connie: Mark, Rais is on speaker right now …talk to him!

Mark: So is Linny  (a friend from England) she is on the phone too I think

Connie: Mark, talk to Rais… ok?

Mark: Rais …how you are doing Rais?

Rais: Hey Mark how are you buddy?

Mark: How are you doing man? …Hey man thank you for everything you have been trying to do for me … you are inspiring. Thank you from my heart dude.

Rais: Mark you should know that I am praying for God the most compassionate and gracious… I forgive you and I do not hate you!  I never hated you!

Mark: You are inspired Rais!

Rais: …and this is from the bottom of my heart…

Mark: You are a remarkable person thank you from my heart! I love you bro!

I love you with whole my heart… thank you for being such an awesome person…I mean it

Rais:  You will always be there…

Mark: You touched my heart… I would have never expected this.

Rais: You touched mine too.

Mark: Hey Rais they are telling me to hang up now I will try to call in a minute.

He never did. Ten minutes later at 5pm his phone was cut and we moved to the administrative building to wait for the 6pm execution.

The execution ultimately took place at around 8.40 pm. Rais ‘s law suit was denied by the Supreme Court and traveled back to the State where it was dismissed.

At 8.53 Mark Stroman was pronounced dead. This conversation was the first and the last one he had with Rais.

More on this amazing day in my next  blog